The Tiger Manifesto

Criticism with claws

Month: December, 2014

Red December Greetings From Tiger Manifesto

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2014 marked another triumphant year for capital, and another year in the decomposition of its rotten national and international rule. Its stench is enough to corrupt even the muffled air of the North American winter. Even as capitalism continues to demonstrate its abject inability to provide a good life for more than a fraction of the world’s people––those being the capitalists and their hangers-on in countries North and South––the forces of the Left have only a few bright, red spots to celebrate this December. In India, comrades in the CPI (Maoist) continue to resist the forces of dispossession and accumulation in the forests and fields of the eastern states. Scattered attempts to divide the capitalist surplus among a larger population continue apace in South America, even if governed by the national bourgeoisie and a reliance on ephemeral oil wealth.

In Europe and North America, the right wing is ascendant, organizing huge racist marches against Muslims in Germany and big poll wins for fascist parties throughout the continent. Social democracy, the creamy foam in the imperialist sewer, evaporates in turn, leaving even the comparably privileged workers of the First World with a lower quality of life. Capitalism must go. Capitalism must be pushed out. Only the power of the democratic masses can accomplish this.

I want to thank all the comrades who helped me in the writing and publishing of this blog, as well as for their encouragement and precious criticism. This blog has little importance in the overall scheme, but I hope it manages to host some worthwhile contributions. Red Greetings to everyone united in the pursuit of struggle, the struggle for true freedom and true democracy throughout the whole world! Here’s to a red new year.

My Favourite Tiger Manifesto Posts from 2014: No Particular Order

On The Interview Incident

Extraordinary events rarely create new conditions or attitudes. Rather, they draw what was once latent or concealed into a harsher light. GamerGate didn’t create the misogyny or anti-intellectualism of male supremacist gamers; it channeled and condensed those attitudes into a movement, much as how the KKK didn’t create racism but simply gives it its most natural outlet. Both of those movements are militant expressions of normative attitudes in society, ogres summoned when the status quo of white settler supremacy or patriarchy seems less assured than usual. Likewise, this farce over The Interview has brought to light the collusion between Hollywood and other arms of American imperial supremacy––as well as the legions of dancing jesters willing to retell the old song about “free speech” and the American way of life.

To be clear: I hold both of those principles in contempt. The Interview is not the product of popular speech; it is a calculated sop to market demographics created by professionals whose work, at its core, is to soak money from beleaguered people who crave a distraction from their daily grind. A daily grind that reproduces itself with their own consent. The proper word for this, of course, is capitalism, the legal theft of labor and the amassing of kingly fortunes at one pole and the creation of colossal misery at the other. Mass culture, as I have brought up many times before, is an industrial monopoly like any other, and in many ways Hollywood operates as the concentrated propaganda machine of the bourgeoisie. The Interview in effect makes sport of the assassination of a living figure, comparable to an Iranian propaganda film about the killing of the American president. Like many comedies and action films, it places the freewheeling American disregard for national sovereignty into an acceptable context. No American would tolerate this kind of mean-spirited attack from another country, but will call the release of this trash a matter of principle at a moment’s notice.

The greatest hypocrisy has to come from certain political leaders who have emphasized that people should be “able to make their own decisions” about the film. Which strikes me as hilarious because the Hollywood system, like all capitalist enterprises, is impervious to any form of popular democracy. It answers only to the demands of capital, and those demands have terminated countless films, many better than The Interview, no doubt, without a peep of public protest. So here we are: the so-called critical press that laments the creeping influence of money on art, or elections, or whatnot, defend to the hilt the right to release a vacuous studio project, to make it a political priority. It is to retch.

Gaming’s Siege Mentality: Even Nice Guys Wear Helmets

UNICEFLOGO

Polygon has a reputation for being from the nice guy side of the gaming press. This mainly stems from it being the target of vilification from GamerGate misogynists and its perspicuity in pointing out the sexism inherent in a character like Bayonetta. That makes it several rungs more respectable than the average online game rag, which exist, in mass, to sell expensive kit to onion-skinned collectors and win cool swag for their highly journalistic staff. Sarcasm aside, they at least attempt to inject a semblance of thought into their output. Such is the case for earnest nice guy features writer Charlie Hall, whose latest article, “Hatred, UNICEF and how gaming’s perception makes it a target for censorship,” tries to defend his hobby from enemies both foreign and domestic.

Though the specifics of the article differ somewhat from the norm––having something to do with UNICEF pitching a fake game to raise awareness for war victims in Southern Sudan––the article has a theme that rings of the primeval. Hum a few bars and the words come rushing back: gaming has a PR problem, and the best way to solve that problem is for gamers to take a genuine interest in the playing habits of people who dabble in games but don’t consider themselves “insiders.” Like a Paul Haggis film, the article arrives at its conclusion by tying together several thematically related plot threads, all of which have to do with gaming’s aforementioned image problems. Hall begins with UNICEF but also includes the recent case of Apple censoring a popular independent game’s nudity while not doing the same for films and television shows it also sells in the same store. He even manages to work in some fatherly disappointment about his career choices.

While the entire article is a noxious stew of individualist liberal nostrums, it manages to provide some unintentional insight into a genuine problem with capitalist subcultures, especially ones like gaming that are essentially pagan monuments to commodity fetishism. Despite being nominally opposed to Let’s string together a few choice quotations and see if we can see the symptoms, appearing like a scarlet rash.

A game like Hatred can disgust me, but while it’s Valve’s right to set the standard for what gets sold through Steam that doesn’t mean I want to see it censored. It’s up to me to put my energy behind games that are the direct opposite of that experience in the same creative space, and to indulge in them instead…

Some people read books that are painful and sad and tragic and make them weep at the end. Other people play games for the same reasons. And no one outside of this hobby knows that.

Gaming has a public relations problem, one so deep that parents fear the hobby will ensnare even their adult children. Games and gamers are regularly judged in ways that are totally unacceptable for any other modern artistic medium…

The only way out of this hole we’re sunk in is for fans of video games to extoll the virtues of this art form, and for critics and commenters to bring their opinions to bear on every work.

Forgive that lengthy interlude, but it’s important to find every link in a chain before you can decide which one is the weakest. What Hall is saying reveals that he has far more ideologically in common with the court jesters in GamerGate. To him, I’m sure that would sound ridiculous since he uses different words and, as we’ve seen from above, different messages are everything. For both GamerGate demagogues and Mr. Hall, gaming culture has no intrinsic problems. Games and games are marginalized and taken for foolish trifles, which maintains the illusion that this colossally profitable and mainstream pursuit is a besieged minority.

Only those in the know have an appreciation for the wonders that games offer, he reasons. Gamers are good people, and GamerGate is an anomaly. Hall never once questions the institutional structures or the capitalist underpinnings of the entire enterprise, the fact that his “hobby” is a lucrative machine oiled by mass marketing, partly facilitated by publications like his. “Gamer” is an identity fundamentally tied to ownership, and this is a value Hall never questions. Not only this, but his conception of censorship and intellectual freedom are clearly not ethical questions at a fundamental level. Rather, they are market functions that deliver the best product to the right consumers.

Gaming does not have a problem of appearance or image. It’s not something that a bunch of freelance game-playing consultants can solve around holiday meal tables. Nor can they be solved with consumer “activism” or “voting with your wallets,” as if mass culture were something that came from the people rather than being something foisted on them. Appeals to the value of criticism and disagreement are cute, but they would be more substantial if the author had any idea what was actually wrong with his deeply disordered community, one he doesn’t even seem to take too seriously given that he uses words like “hobby” and “technophiles” to describe it. At least he’s perceptive enough to notice that the game industry is basically a branch of the gadget business––though he shows no sign of thinking that’s a bad thing. Games can be wonderful, but are fundamentally constrained not by an image problem but by the demands of a capitalist system that marginalizes anyone who can’t fit the mass-market mold. Real artistic progress requires more than a few stories: it takes a cultural revolution, which no one in the gaming press, to say the least, is capable of even broaching at this point.

Socialism Quotation Placeholder Post #1: Étienne Balibar on Class Struggle

Greetings to my long-suffering readers. If you have felt the Tiger Manifesto post drought as acutely as I have, you must be going through quite the trauma. As a stopgap measure, like the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dike, I am going to post brief, potentially witty quotations from socialist notables I happen to have on hand. Because much of my study time this past few months was spent reading Althusser and his intellectual progeny, I have quite a few on hand, which should make finding something both trenchant and accessible a fun challenge. Since I anticipate these droughts breaking out in the future, I’ve made it a series. Godspeed you all.

“We have already been told in the Manifesto that the struggle of the workers begins with their very existence. And Capital shows that the first moment of that struggle is the existence of a collective of workers, either in the factory or enterprise or outside it in the town or city, in politics (but in reality always between these two spaces, moving from the one to the other). It is a presupposition of the ‘wage form’ that workers are treated exclusively as individual persons, so that their labour-power can be bought and sold as a thing of greater or lesser value, so that they can be ‘disciplined’ and ‘made responsible’. But the collective is an ever self-renewing precondition of production itself. In reality, there are always two overlapping collectives of workers, made up of the same individuals (or almost) and yet incompatible: a capital-collective and a proletariat-collective. Without the latter, engendered by the resistance to capitalist collectivization, the capitalist ‘autocrat’ could not himself exist.”

Étienne Balibar. The Philosophy Of Marx.

It gets at the inescapable dynamics of capital’s effect on the workers. In order to rationalize and improve production, which is always imperative under capitalism, it must concentrate workers, who are supposed to be mere individuals, in space and time. Capital needs its own destroyers to function, and those people are both the proletariat of the Manifesto and the legions of value-producers in Capital. Socialist organization can’t help but take account of this fact when building alliances and producing revolutionary situations. It also explains some of the social roots of how bourgeois ideology can grow influential even among its victims. Capitalism might be exploitative and take advantage of all kinds of social differences and oppressions, but it is also the means by which almost everyone on earth is fed, clothed and sheltered. That is, if they have those things at all.

Sam and Max: Freelance Kitschmongers

Sam and Marx Cover

Human beings seem to have this idea that, if animals could talk, they would be terribly cynical about everything. One of the archetypal examples of this is Hobbes from the Bill Watterson comic strip. Even though Hobbes is a bouncy, joyous character, his view of humanity is pitch black. I bring up Calvin and Hobbes because those title characters make an informative comparison to Sam and Max.

Both are duos of comic characters created in the 1980s who have a great deal of cultural prestige despite not being as popular as, say, Snoopy. Where the two diverge is in tone. Calvin and Hobbes certainly had a satirical streak, overtly parodying Flash Gordon, Dick Tracy, and Superman‘s overheated prose styles and flashy artwork. Wattersons’ characters also often took opportunities to mock disposable American consumer culture, conveying their creator’s well-known aversion to commercialism. The comic strip could also have a genuinely curious spirit to it, mocking hypocrisy but openly celebrating creativity and the wonder of nature. Sam and Max, however, descends from the Looney Tunes lineage. In all of its incarnations, the characters are manic, frequently self-aware, and almost totally amoral, committed to causing chaos and raising Cain. It’s not hard to see the deranged, sharp-toothed lagomorph Max as a 1980s update of Bugs Bunny with an appetite for destruction and a craving for stomach-churning junk food.

But now I want to focus less on the characters of Sam and Max themselves and more on their relationship to that junk food. And cheap toupees, celebrity-shaped gourds, circus freaks, and the world’s largest ball of twine. Yes, this is another salvo in my ongoing discussion of kitsch, the commoditized lifeblood of the American art market, the river of tripe that New York galleries blissfully glide over like unicorns in a summer meadow. One of Sam and Max’s defining characteristics is their prostration before almighty plastic doodads and greasy processed foods. They are head-over-heels ironically in love with everything chintzy and pandering. In many ways, they are the ideal post-Fordist consumers: ironically detached and able to mock the hell out of knick-knacks and fried foods but only too willing to purchase tons of it. In the comics, games, and the television show Sam and Max: Freelance Police (the first game being our main topic for the evening), the characters have an ambivalent relationship to filth and junk. They are “skeptical hedonists,” savants of the known-to-be-bad. Observe the following typical exchange:

Screenshot 2014-12-08 23.15.28

Text: Sam says, “It’s one of those impossible-to-win carny games that have been ripping off the American consumer for decades!”

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Text: Max says, “I love capitalism.”

 This conversation happens early in the game and serves to establish the tone of the piece. Sam, the more moral one of the pair, sports both a faux-Bogart voice and a withered sense of duty. Max, on the other hand, is more like the aforementioned Bugs Bunny mixed with the Tasmanian Devil. His heart is in it for the anarchy, with any attachment to the cause of justice being tenuous at best. Jokes like this function in a specific way: they call attention to social problems, trite tropes, or other unpleasant business, but lacking any kind of critical edge. There is no imperative to the punchline because the jokes are subsumed in a text that dissolves everything into a cartoon triviality. The pace of such lines works differently in an adventure game than in a television show, of course. In a TV show, episodes develop themes and incidents over time in a linear fashion, which means that jokes can play off of one another and relate to each other in time in a very specific way. In a game, on the other hand, every joke is its own self-contained bit.

The little gag shown above happens when the player inspects a carnival game, which may not ever even happen. Of course, for the joke to work it still has to be in-character and have good internal timing, but the flow of language in the game is not predetermined or holistic but highly contextual: click on something and be rewarded for a joke. It’s a different kind of humor, and because of that these “political” jokes have even less impact than they would in the show. Lines like this pertain to a single situation, producing a witty retort or maybe some back-and-forth leading to a punchline, after which the player clicks on something different. There is a flow, and themes and plot lines do develop, but there’s nothing incisive or biting about it; it’s parody but, ironically given Max’s grin, toothless.

Chuck Kleinhaus notes that parody is “persistent under conditions of advanced capitalism. Parody stands as a means of accommodation to things that people think they cannot change.”¹ Sam and Max are almost utterly unprincipled, which is a winning trait for cartoon characters because they can embody a pleasant fantasy of consequence-free mayhem. It would be wrong of us, though, to mistake wry jokes as being in any way subversive. Let’s look at another gag to see another example of what I mean. The setup is that Max is appalled by the fact that the Siamese twins who own the local carnival are technically naked since their skin just grows as green vinyl––it makes little more sense in context––whereupon Sam reminds Max that he is also naked. Max responds:

Screenshot 2014-12-08 23.12.35

Text: Max says, “Yeah, but I’m cute and marketable.”

I have to concede that, of the two technically naked characters in this scene, Max is easier on the eyes. More to the point, what we have here is a self-aware commodity. Not only that, but the mascot characters in this capitalist entertainment product are fully aware of their being shills for a game company. What’s notable is that not only are Sam and Max utterly at peace with their kitschy American world, they are knowingly kitsch themselves.

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Pictured: the kitschy world of Sam and Max: Hit the Road.

To delve once more into the scholarly realm, let’s quote Kleinhaus one more time:

The characteristic parody of self-aware kitsch promotes what John Fiske has called “skeptical hedonism” in audience response to much mass-culture documentary, that is, we all know this is a fantasy, but we want in on the fun of such phenomena, for example, as television wrestling or supermarket tabloid headlines. In this duality of response, self-aware kitsch is related to, or overlaps with, Camp.²

What we have here is an explicit example of what modern advertising thrives on: its ability to convince its audience that it is in on the joke. At this point, satires of advertising are often actually advertising themselves, showing to me that satire is ultimately toothless as a tool for social change. As long as capitalism needs to stoke consumer demand to absorb its immense surplus and avoid crises, advertising will evolve in response to culture’s attempts to render it impotent. People become aware of advertising ploys and, like in Sam and Max, call attention to them and make a show of being unaffected. Coincidentally, Bill Watterson provides us with an apt demonstration of this process:

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Text: Calvin says: “Another thing to remember about popular culture is that today’s TV-reared audience is hip and sophisticated. This stuff doesn’t affect us. We can separate fact from fiction. We understand satire and irony. We’re detached and jaded viewers who aren’t influenced by what we watch. ” Hobbes says: “I think I hear advertisers laughing.” Calvin says: “Hold on. I need to inflate my basketball shoes.”

Ultimately, Sam and Max make for weak satirists because they rarely draw connections between the obvious shortcomings of their daily lives and deeper social determinants. That doesn’t make them unfunny or bad cartoon characters, but as parodies or satires go, they seem distinctly lacking in substance. There’s no edge to them, which makes them, as Max astutely points out, marketable. But that tends to mean the opposite of critical, and Sam and Max tend to want to have their cake and eat it too a little too often. Though, with sweet teeth like theirs, I’m sure that sounds delightful to them.

Notes:

1. Chuck Kleinhaus, “Taking Out the Trash: Camp and the Politics of Parody,” in The Politics and Poetics of Camp, ed. Moe Meyer (New York: Routledge, 1994), 171.

2. Ibid, 160.

Something in the Caucasian Air: Vladimir Mayakovsky’s Poetry

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From a cursory examination of Mayakovsky’s biography, it seems fitting to situate him in three spheres: futurist poetry and Russian modernism, Russian communist politics, and the Caucasus region. These were his artistic, political, and geographical sources of nourishment. While the first two are well-documented, it seems to go too often unremarked at how turbulent the early twentieth century was in the Caucasus region. A zone spanning Iran, the Ottoman Empire, and Russia, the three great empires of Western Eurasia at the time, it has proved remarkably impervious to my historical investigations. Home to the Baku oilfields teeming with Iranian guest workers, Armenia without a state, Stalin and, of course, Mayakovsky’s birthplace, it is a staging ground for some of the most consequential events of the early 1900s.

His poetry, even in English translation, is almost unbearably lucid. Like many of the great revolutionary writers of the time––Lenin and Stalin included––he uses straightforward language in an effort to corrode illusions and communicate with directness. His works brim with biting rhetorical questions, imperatives, and striking details. “You,” an early poem from 1915, is emblematic of his often accusatory tone:

You, wallowing through orgy after orgy,

owning a bathroom and warm, snug toilet!

How dare you read about awards of St. Georgi

from newspaper columns with your blinkers oily?

Do you realise, multitudinous nonentities

thinking how better to fill your gob,

that perhaps just now Petrov the lieutenant

had both his legs ripped off by a bomb?

Imagine if he, brought along for slaughter,

suddenly saw, with his blood out-draining,

you, with your mouths still dribbling soda-water

and vodka, lasciviously crooning Severyanin!

To give up my life for the likes of you,

lovers of woman-flesh, dinners and cars?

I’d rather go and serve pineapple juice

to the whores in Moscow’s bars.

Internalizing the revolutionary struggles of the time into his language, he produced some stirring calls to arms. Convinced of the crucial role of art in revolutionizing the new Soviet Republic, he expressed his frustration with the formalistic direction art had retreated towards in even its most radical manifestations:

To you,

fig-leaf-camouflaged mystics,

foreheads dug over with furrows sublime,

futuristic, imagistic, acmeistic, stuck tight in your cobwebs of rhyme.

To you, 

who abandoned smooth haircuts for matted,

slick shoes for bast clogs a-la-russki,

proletcultists

sewing your patches

on the faded frock-coat of Alexander Pushkin.

Excerpt from “Order No. 2 to the Army of Arts,” 1921.

While one could characterize modernism as a whole as a series of avant-gardes looking to surpass their forebears’ in formal invention and aesthetic ruptures, culminating in movements like minimalism in the 1950s and 60s, it rarely sank deep roots in political projects. And given that until the Chinese Cultural Revolution in the 1960s there was no more profound political revolution than the Russian, it makes sense that Mayakovsky’s poetry founded its advocacy for new forms on revolutionary enthusiasm. His militant overtures were not, because political, less relevant to the art to which he dedicated his life. On the contrary, his poetry posited a deep and indissoluble connection between the health of poetry and the health of the new society the people had inaugurated. It was not the common people, mired in the dirt and oil of the revolution, who lagged behind. It was the reclusive artists, “picturing the future as an opportune academic salary for every nitwit.” The arts was a revolutionary weapon, and like the country had to be purged of error in order to serve the people.

My only exposure to Mayakovsky before reading a collection of his poetry was in a Russian literature class that framed him as a propagandist for the party, a futurist who had sacrificed all of his integrity for the sake of political favour. Besides the fact that he satirized Soviet society rather ruthlessly––indeed, it got him into hot water with the state later on––this dismissive caricature of this man’s art does a disservice to the power of political art. If Mayakovsky was a propagandist, he was a masterfully artful one, someone who embraced rather than shirked the responsibility of the artist to the people. This is not to sanctify him; he would have sneered at hagiography. Rather, I merely find reading his poetry a liberating exercise, giving expression to some of my more boundless enthusiasms. He was just one of many great communist poets of the last century, a voice that somehow matched the rhythms of revolution echoing wherever the tyrannies of capitalist rule could be endured no longer.

I look forward to hopefully finding some copies of his satirical plays. Until then, stay red, my friends.

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